Donors Urge Cuomo to Press for Public Financing of State Campaigns

Donors Urge Cuomo to Press for Public Financing of State Campaigns

New York Times

Thomas Kaplan

May 22, 2013

ALBANY — As the capital is engulfed in scandals, advocates of campaign finance reform are intensifying their pressure on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, urging him to persuade the Legislature to rewrite state elections law in the hope that change in New York could have an influence nationally.

About 140 major political donors, including more than 50 fund-raisers for President Obama, have signed a letter supporting public financing in New York — an idea that appears to have no support among the Republicans who share control of the State Senate.

Despite the opposition from Republicans, Democrats and government reformers across the country believe New York presents perhaps their best opportunity for change that could have a national impact as they seek to counteract the outsize, and growing, influence of large contributions in American politics.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has said he will press for changes to the state’s campaign law and has called public financing “essential.” But he has also repeatedly noted the political opposition to such an idea. Some of those pressing for action are concerned that, with just four weeks left in the legislative session, the governor will give up on the issue.

“I know what he says, but it’s time for deeds and not words anymore,” said Arnold Hiatt, the former chief executive of the Stride Rite footwear company and a longtime political donor. “I’m hoping he becomes the profile in courage that he could be.”

The list of donors asking for action from Mr. Cuomo includes Wall Street figures like the billionaire financier George Soros, the hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman and the venture capitalist Alan Patricof. It also includes coveted political donors from other walks of life, including Rob Reiner, the director of “When Harry Met Sally” and “A Few Good Men”; Leo J. Hindery Jr., a former Yankees television executive; Susie Tompkins Buell, a founder of the Esprit clothing company; and Robert McKay, the heir to the Taco Bell fortune and the chairman of the Democracy Alliance, a group of liberal donors.

Matt Wing, a spokesman for the governor, said, “We appreciate the support for the governor’s leadership on this very important issue, and hope the Legislature gets the message as well.”

The Public Campaign Action Fund, a national advocacy group, helped coordinate the letter from the donors, which was sent to the governor’s office last month but had not previously been made public. All told, the donors have raised or contributed at least $50 million for federal candidates and parties in recent years.

“These are the kinds of people that a Cuomo candidacy for president will need,” said David B. Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University who is writing a book about donors to the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “And so it’s a two-way street: they’re influencing Cuomo to go full-speed ahead on reforms at the state level, while knowing full well that he likely has national ambitions, and therefore he will be back to them should a set of circumstances arise where he is going to seek the nomination.”

The scandals of the last two months — three lawmakers have been arrested on corruption charges, and one has resigned over sexual harassment allegations — are being cited by both sides of the campaign finance debate. Democrats and government reform groups want Albany to adopt for statewide and legislative races a system of public financing modeled after the one used in New York City, where candidates, in exchange for agreeing to spending limits, can receive $6 in matching funds for every $1 they raise from individuals, for contributions up to $175.

Advocates for public financing say the system would make it easier for challengers to compete against Albany’s many longtime incumbents, but opponents say it makes no sense to hand over tax dollars to politicians who have shown a propensity for criminality.

“I can’t think of a worse idea,” the Republican leader in the Senate, Dean G. Skelos of Long Island, wrote in an op-ed article published last week in The Times Union of Albany, calling public financing “a recipe for more corruption.” (Although Democrats have a numerical majority in the Senate, Republicans have partial control of the chamber — and veto power over any bill moving to the floor — thanks to an alliance they formed with an independent faction of Democrats.)

Mr. Cuomo wants legislators to approve public financing as part of a broader package of reform measures aimed at deterring corruption in Albany. So far, he has highlighted other aspects of the package, like strengthening criminal statutes. But at a news conference on Tuesday, he said that he was pursuing public financing, too, and that he had made a strategic decision to hold off introducing legislation while he negotiated with lawmakers.

“ ‘Do they want a press release, or do they want something passed?’ is the question that has to be posed,” Mr. Cuomo said, adding that he thought there was “still a chance” he could reach an agreement with legislative leaders in the coming weeks.

The pressure on Mr. Cuomo is in part a reflection of his past successes. He influenced the national debate when, in 2011, he persuaded a reluctant Republican-controlled Senate to legalize same-sex marriage, and this year, before any other state had taken action, he prevailed on lawmakers to approve gun-control laws in response to the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The wealthy donors who have written to Mr. Cuomo acknowledge the irony of seeking to diminish the influence of big campaign donations in New York State’s political system, all while attracting attention because of their capacity to write checks.

“We know how the system works from the inside, and we know it needs change,” said Ellen Chesler, an author and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal policy and leadership organization. She and her husband, Matthew Mallow, the general counsel for the asset management firm BlackRock, hosted a picnic fund-raiser with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Bridgehampton last summer that featured a performance by James Taylor.

“This is like marriage equality — a moral issue for our time,” Ms. Chesler said.

Many of the donors are watching Mr. Cuomo as a possible contender for president in 2016.

“Demonstrated leadership on an important issue like this goes a long way in terms of suggesting that that’s the kind of leadership the governor could bring to D.C.,” said Spencer A. Overton, a law professor at George Washington University who raised more than $2 million for Mr. Obama’s campaigns. “There are other times before an election where candidates make promises, and they come up with grand platforms and ideas, and attract people. Governor Cuomo is in a situation right now where he can exert his leadership and actually accomplish something.”

But State Senator John A. DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican and the chairman of the Finance Committee, said he hoped Mr. Cuomo would resist pressure from Democrats who could help him wage a national campaign.

“I think it would be a huge mistake,” Mr. DeFrancisco said, adding that the governor’s “first effort to show his bona fides with progressive groups was the gun-control law, and then his numbers went down precipitously.”

“In my mind,” he said, “when you start looking at political paths to a result several years down the road, you lose support of people that want you to make reasonable decisions.”

“I haven’t gotten one call urging me to do public financing,” he added. “I mean, people are saying the economy stinks. Taxes are too high. There’s no jobs. Those are the things that I think people really want and are important to the state, not whether or not public financing is going to be passed.”

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